An Excellent Evening of Lieder from Röschmann and Uchida

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schumann, Alban Berg Dorothea Röschmann (soprano),  Mitsuko Uchida,  (piano), Wigmore Hall, 2.5.2015. (GD)

Schumann:   Liederkreis Op.39
Frauenliebe und -leben
Alban Berg:   Sieben frühe Lieder

Romantic poetry was a source of inspiration for Schumann who at one point  in his early years thought of devoting his life to poetry. He finally decided in favour of music,  but he also realised that music was a condition for the extension and intensification  of poetry. Indeed Schumann’s lieder can be seen as a kind of aesthetic fusion of music and poetry, the latter inspiring the former and vice versa. Schumann chose from a range of poets, mostly German, including: Klopstock, Hölderlin, Jean Paul, E T A Hoffmann, Friedrich Schlegel and Novalis. This poetic influence also applied to Schumann’s copious piano output. In a song cycle like Liederkreis the poetry, the words are illuminated and they aquire a kind of tonal ‘Aura’. There was a strong association between  poetry/music and the composer’s deepest emotions which he saw as an affective almost autobiographical aesthetic. This was also extended to his muse Clara, both before and after their marriage. Indeed he wrote to Clara that Liederkreis spoke very much to and of her. The Liederkreis after Joseph von Eichendorff, is perhaps the most significant of all Schumann’s song settings. The cycle consists of twelve darkly nocturnal songs of nature, songs of longing and hope, of melancholy and happiness – all of them reaching into the Romantic depths, the ‘unfathomableness’ which Schumann felt to be at the core of his being. The cycle opens with ‘In der Fremde’ (In the Unknown). The magic of the forest and of thunder is captured in the remorselessly rising and falling semi-quaver figuration in the piano part, while the vocal melody, like a folk song and staying within the compass of the seventh, expresses the sad plight of one to whom the world is alien. Röschmann caught this feeling of alienation with a tone of vocal anguish and empathy which never sounded over-rhetorical; it perfectly caught the pathos of the poetic narrative, and was totally in dialogue with Uchida’s piano part. This was not so much mere accompaniment but inextricably interwoven with the vocal part. In this cycle, also in Frauenliebe und -Leben, we can hear Schumann extending, elaborating  the piano part to further convey the tone, emotion of the poem. In the following song, ‘intermezzo’ we hear a quiet inward love song above a floating syncopated accompaniment, which soars in melody. Here Röschmann’s sotto voce was a model of vocal constraint, as was Uchida’s piano part, which fully intoned the quite complex piano writing, while never detracting from the poem and it vocal realisation. I make this point as some really top rank pianists have been known to dominate the lied sound-scape, to the extent that it no longer becomes ‘lied’. ‘ Waldesgespräch’ (Forest discourse) is an uncanny ballad of the supernatural in the woods at dusk. Here we have a range of Romantic, Gothic motif’s – Lorelei witch apparitions, a knight from the middle-ages, horn calls, the ‘ghostly whispers of manly desire’, and the demonical triumph of the enchantress. Here I was amazed at Roschmann’s vocal range, almost becoming ‘operatic’ at times and easily filling the acoustic of the Wigmore Hall. Of the remaining songs special praise must go to: ‘Mondnacht’ (Moonlit Night) with its dream of earthly peace, and longing for heaven (a great favourite of Thomas Mann) and a beautiful fading coda of dark dissonance, and Zwielicht (Twilight) with its Sprechgesang (speech song) and linear piano part, without full chords suggesting the whispering of prowling demons, were particularly magical with a perfect fusion of piano and the many shifts in tonality and timbre of the vocal part.

Berg’s Seven Early Songs were written while he was still studying with Schoenberg. They are an interesting synthesis combining Berg’s heritage of pre-Schoenberg song writing with the rigorous influence of Schoenberg. The writing very much carries with it the heritage of Strauss, Mahler and Wagner. But there is also the influence of Debussy’s harmonic palette, especially in the first song ‘Nacht’ (by Carl Hauptmann). The songs were first written for voice and piano, they were later revised for voice and orchestra in 1928,  In a sense the songs are important as a transitional work with the influence of 19th century lied, but also looking forward to later expressionist and atonal compositions. All this was reflected tonight with Röschmann’s  surging Straussian climaxes, and the vocal relay of broken harmonies in the first song ‘Nacht’, the most modern of the set, having most likely been composed later than the others. ‘Schilflied (Reed song – a poem by Nikolaus Lenau) creates an atmosphere of the mystery and nostalgia of nature (very similar to classic Romantic themes). ‘Nachtigall’ (Nightingale by Theodor Storm) gives a Brahmsian depth to the traditional A-B-A structure. Although Röschmann is a soprano she can certainly manage and sustain tonal  depth. Of the remaining songs special mention must go to ‘Traumgekrönt’ (Crowned with dreams by Rainer Maria Rilke) which has an almost Freudian take on dreams, unconscious desire and ‘reality’. Both Berg and Schoenberg would have known of Dr Freud, the ‘mind doctor’ of Vienna.  Uchida’s piano part was exemplary here and throughout combining shades of Schoenbergian minimalism and both traces of and actual Romanticism – also to the final song ‘Sommertage'(Summertime, Rainer Maria Rilke), rich in imagery with shades of a pervading Romantic theme – the wanderer. The climax on the last syllable of the text and sustained final minor chord, were as compellingly contoured and sustained as I could imagine.

Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben set to a cycle of poems by Adelbert von Chamisso has been subjected to much critical analysis, some of it quite recent. Feminists have dismissed it as a hymn to patriarchy, with women only recognised as women if totally subordinated to their husbands. And psychoanalytic critique has tended to read the poem as endorsing the notion that perfect Romantic conjugal bliss is an illusion, as played out in the the last gloomy song. But from a context of the first half of the 19th century this was very much the marital convention. For his time Schumann was exceptionally open in his relationship with his wife Clara, but he still tended to see her as a wife, and as a composing, performing musician secondary to him and his musical achievements.  Schumann arranged the songs to represent the different stages of a woman’s life. In ‘Seit ich ihn gesehen’ (When I first saw him) after proclaiming her absolute love and devotion to him, she sings of how dull and lifeless everything is without him. Schumann illustrates the darkness of  her world by a descending   seventh on the word tiefsten (deepest), superbly realised by Roschmann near the end of her first verse. In ‘Er, der Herrlichste von allen’ ( He, the most wonderful of all) we learn of the kindness and goodness of her affections to him, and that she feels unworthy of her man. Uchida here perfectly intoned the anxious character of a breathless heartbeat. Throughout the cycle, and even more than in Liederkreis, the piano has a remarkable independence from the voice, breaking away from the Schubertian ideal. In the 1950s this song in particular was highlighted and popularised by Kathleen Ferrier, and her complete recording of the whole cycle was much played and broadcast.  All the other songs in the cycle were beautifully characterised particularly ‘Süsser Freund’ (Sweet friend), where she tries to tell her husband that she is expecting his child. But special mention must go to the last song, ‘Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan’ ( Now you have caused me my first pain). Here the positive and hopeful atmosphere of the cycle changes drastically. The D major of the previous song gives way to a sombre D minor with Rõschmann almost vocally intoning a broken, spectral mood here; as the woman looks upon her now dead husband, the vocal line becomes increasingly lower. The song closes with a solo piano quotation of the first song, poetically realised by Uchida. However the return is fittingly incomplete. This leaves the cycle somewhat poetically unbalanced. The death of the husband is sudden, unforeseen;  the end of the cycle is equally unprepared. Maybe an earlier critique of balanced, ‘feel good’ endings? When the woman seems to accuse the man for dying – …’you harsh and pitiless man’ … is this not in line with Freud’s notion that ‘love’ is usually shot through with narcissism?

Overall this   lieder recital was the most rewarding I have heard for a long time, either in concert, or on record. It is also the first time I have heard Uchida in lieder, and on the strength of this compelling recital, I hope to hear much more of her in this role (as well in her role as a superb soloist.)

As a delightful encore Rõschmann and Uchida gave an idiomatically flowing rendition of Schubert’s ‘An Mignon’, D 161.

Geoff Diggines.

For a second opinion of this concert see Mark Berry’s review here